How to Choose the Right Applicators for Exterior Stain Projects

Get professional-looking results on your exterior stain projects when you pick the best paint rollers and paint brushes

How to choose the best paint brushes

When staining an exterior project, the tool you use to apply the stain can make a dramatic difference in the look of the stain and how long it will last. The paint or stain you choose will typically have the recommended applicator type on its label. This guide will explain the basic differences between using brushes and rollers when applying stain to exterior projects.

Tip: Always refer to the product's packaging for specific direction. The manufacturer will print their recommended use on all brushes and roller covers that you should follow for best results.

Stain brush

Paint brushes are commonly used to apply paint or stain on projects with a smaller surface area or in oddly-shaped spaces. The material and shape of the bristles make the most difference in application look. Remember: No mater the material, the higher quality brush, the longer it will last.

Bristle Material: Natural bristles provide the best results with alkyd/oil stains, but become limp if used with 100% acrylic or acrylic/oil stains. 

  • Natural bristles should be used with alkyd/oil stains. They are less likely than synthetic bristles to create brush marks and can be cleaned and reused for multiple projects. When back- brushing, the hollow filament of the natural bristle brush picks up excess stain and redeposits it in areas which will absorb more stain. 
  • Synthetic bristles should be used with 100% acrylic and acrylic/oil stains. They are generally less expensive than brushes with natural bristles and it may be easiest to simply dispose of them when your project is complete.


Bristle Shape: Most brushes are square cut. Brushes cut at an angle are called sash brushes.

  • Square-cut brushes are versatile but offer limited control 
  • Sash brushes offer greater control for corners and narrow spaces


Brush Width: Always choose a brush that is at least slightly narrower than the surface you are coating.

  • 1 - 2-inch brushes are ideal for narrow surfaces like trim 
  • 2 ½ - 3-inch brushes are best for narrow boards, railings and cutting-in 
  • 3 ½-inch or larger brush can be used for large surfaces
Roller covers

Roller covers slide onto a roller head, which then can be attached onto a pole. The covers come in a variety of naps (thickness or configuration). Typically, the manufacturer will specify whether you need a long (heavy) nap, or a short nap. In some instances, the roller can be used to deliver stain to your project, followed by some back-brushing to eliminate drips and runs.

Cover material: Just like with natural and synthetic brush bristles, natural fibers provide best results with alkyd stains, but become matted if used with acrylic or acrylic/oil coatings.

  • Natural fibers should be used with alkyd/oil stains 
  • Synthetic fibers should be used with 100% acrylic and acrylic/oil stains


Nap Length: Select based on the texture of the surface and how smooth a result is desired.

  • 3/16 - ¼-inch roller covers will provide smooth results on smooth surfaces 
  • 3/8 - ½-inch roller covers are best for use on lightly textured surfaces such as like-new wood 
  • ¾-inch or thicker roller covers should be used on rough surfaces like weathered exterior wood
Paint sprayer
  • Stain pads do an excellent job of applying the correct amount of stain, especially on smooth wood. You can purchase the head, which will attach onto a pole, along with several refill pads for your project. Pads are disposed of when the job is done. 
  • Pump sprayers are inexpensive and can either be cleaned after use, or disposed of appropriately. Pump sprayers work well with less viscous (thin) stains that are easy to apply. The stain manufacturer should indicate whether a pump sprayer is appropriate. Pump sprayer packages will also indicate their compatibility with different stains - avoid using garden sprayers as they are not designed for use with stains.
  • Airless sprayers are professional sprayers that may be indicated for certain stains, especially for high viscosity (thick) products that would otherwise be difficult to spray. Airless sprayers can typically be rented as well as purchased. The cleanup of an airless sprayer is a little more involved than the inexpensive pump sprayer.

Tip: For more professional-looking results, try this technique: Use a sprayer to deliver stain to your project, followed by back-brushing to eliminate drips and runs.